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Chile’s river claim ‘hypothetical’, Bolivia tells UN court

Bolivia hit back Monday at Chile’s claim for equal rights to a small cross-border river, saying Santiago’s case before the UN’s highest court was “hypothetical.”

Chile in 2016 dragged Bolivia before the International Court of Justice, asking judges to declare the Silala an “international water course” and give it equal rights to use its waters.

“The subject matter of the Chilean application is primarily hypothetical in nature,” Mathias Forteau, one of Bolivia’s lawyers told the judges at the ICJ — which rules in disputes between countries.

Forteau, a law professor at Paris’s Nanterre University, was referring to Santiago’s request for judges to ask Bolivia to stop interfering with the Silala’s water supply to Chile through the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on earth.

“Bolivia has never, I stress never, taken the least measure which may have blocked, hindered or prevented in any way the flow of the waters of the Silala River on Chilean territory,” Forteau said.

“Nor has it taken measures of any kind which may have stopped the Chilean state from using these waters,” he added.

In a legal game of ping-pong, Bolivia also counter-sued Chile, “asking the ICJ to rule that it had “sovereignty… over the artificial flow of Silala waters engineered, enhanced, or produced in its territory,” — and demanded that Chile pay compensation.

Flowing for around eight kilometres (five miles), the Silala is a highly modified canal system which takes water from natural springs before being diverted into a reception area in Chile, images at the hearing showed.

– ‘Strong terms’ –

Former Bolivian president Evo Morales had sought to use the dispute as a bargaining chip in Bolivia’s larger fight to gain access to the Pacific Ocean, which it lost to Chile in a war in the 19th century.

But the ICJ in 2018 sank Bolivia’s bid, saying Chile had “no case to answer” as it was “not legally obligated to negotiate such a move”.

At the time Morales threatened to reduce the flow of the Silala into Chile’s parched Atacama and impose fees for its use.

Forteau said “admittedly the Bolivian authorities in the past have made statements.”

“Some of these declarations may have been expressed in strong terms.”

But that is the very nature of certain political speeches, particularly given that the two nations were at odds over the issue of access to the sea, Forteau said.

Chile and Bolivia have had no diplomatic ties since 1978 when Bolivia’s last attempt to negotiate a passage to the Pacific broke down in acrimony.

Chile in 2000 proposed to formally negotiate the use of Silala’s waters and was willing to pay for it but those discussions stalled when Bolivia raised the price.

Forteau however said Bolivia believed in international cooperation to solve the Silala River dispute and not through “unilateral legal action.”

“The agent of Chile asked on Friday why we are still here, before the court,” he said.

“Well, with due respect, the relevant question is rather, why are we even here in the first place?” he said.

The hearings will continue for the rest of the week.

A final judgement however could take months, if not years.

Once handed down, ICJ judgements are binding and cannot be appealed.